The Comey memos are memoranda of conversations written by James Comey when he was Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). They reportedly document meetings and telephone conversations between Comey and President Donald Trump. The existence of the memos was first reported on May 16, 2017, about one week after Trump dismissed Comey as FBI Director and after the May 12 tweet by Trump which implied that there may be conversations with Comey on tape.
It was reported that one memo, dated February 14, 2017, describes an alleged attempt by Trump to persuade Comey to abort the FBI investigation into Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, who had resigned his post of national security advisor the previous day, after he misled senior U.S. officials "about the nature of his conversations" with Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak. The White House responded to the allegations by stating that "the president has never asked Mr. Comey or anyone else to end any investigation, including any investigation involving General Flynn". According to a Comey associate, Trump also stated that Comey should consider putting reporters who publish classified information in prison.
On May 16, a Columbia University law professor leaked a description of the February 14 memo (not the memo itself) to The New York Times and the Times published the report later that day. After the NYT report, leaders of the House Oversight Committee and the Intelligence Committee, and of the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Judiciary Committee requested the production of the Comey memos, with a deadline for production of May 24. On May 17, the Deputy Attorney General, as acting Attorney General, appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel charged with overseeing the FBI's ongoing counterintelligence investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections and related matters. On May 25, the FBI said it was still reviewing the Committees' requests, in view of the appointment of the special counsel. On June 8, Comey testified to the Senate Intelligence Committee that he had asked the professor to "share the content of the memo with a reporter" because he "thought that might prompt the appointment of a special counsel". To date, the Comey memos have still not been produced or released to the public.
According to Benjamin Wittes, Director Comey would record a detailed memo immediately following every meeting and telephone call he had with President Donald Trump. Allegedly, some memos were classified, while others were not.
One memo, which is unclassified, referred to a February 14, 2017, Oval Office meeting between Comey and Trump that began as a broader national security briefing. The meeting was on the day after the dismissal of Michael Flynn by Trump. Near the conclusion of the briefing, according to this memo, the President asked those in attendance other than Director Comey to leave the room - including Vice President Mike Pence and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. He then reportedly said to Comey "I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go." Comey made no commitments to Trump on the subject.
The New York Times reported that Comey created the memos as part of a "paper trail" to document "what he perceived as the president's improper efforts to influence a continuing investigation". Comey himself said, in his June 8 testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, that he documented his conversations with Trump because he "was honestly concerned he (Trump) might lie" about them. "I knew there might come a day when I might need a record of what happened," he said. At the time Comey shared the February 14 memo with "a very small circle of people at the FBI and Justice Department". Comey and other senior FBI officials perceived Trump's remarks "as an effort to influence the investigation, but they decided that they would try to keep the conversation secret — even from the FBI agents working on the Russia investigation — so the details of the conversation would not affect the investigation".
The Washington Post reported that two Comey associates who had seen Comey's memo described it as two pages long and highly detailed. The Times noted that contemporaneous notes created by FBI agents are frequently relied upon "in court as credible evidence of conversations".
According to a Washington Post report, the memos also document Trump's criticism of the FBI for not pursuing leakers in the administration and his wish "to see reporters in jail". The report outraged journalists and free-speech groups, who likened the statement to intimidation tactics used by authoritarian regimes. The Committee to Protect Journalists and Washington Post executive editor Martin Baron were among those who criticized the statement.
The memos' existence was first reported in a May 16, 2017, New York Times report, published about a week after Trump fired Comey as FBI director and after the May 12 tweet by Trump which implied that there may be conversations with Comey on tape. The report cited two people who read the memos to the Times reporter. The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post independently reported on the memos' existence.
Following the published description of the contents of the February 14 memo, the White House stated that "the president has never asked Mr. Comey or anyone else to end any investigation, including any investigation involving General Flynn" and stated "This is not a truthful or accurate portrayal of the conversation between the president and Mr. Comey."
On May 16, on the same day that the existence of the Comey memos were reported, Republican U.S. Representative Jason Chaffetz, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, wrote a letter to acting FBI Director McCabe, requesting that "all memoranda, notes, summaries and recordings referring or relating to any communications between Comey and the President" be provided to the committee by May 24. Chaffetz wrote in the letter that the reports "raise questions as to whether the president attempted to influence or impede" the Flynn investigation. Chaffetz said that he intended to obtain the memos by subpoena if necessary. House Speaker Paul Ryan supported Chaffetz's request.
On May 25, the FBI said it was still reviewing the Committee's request in view of the appointment of the special counsel. In a further request on May 25, Chaffetz asked the FBI to turn over documents about Comey's interactions with the White House and Justice Department since Comey's appointment as FBI Director, which also covers interactions between Comey and President Obama.
Democratic U.S. Representative Adam Schiff, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, stated: "If true, this is yet another disturbing allegation that the president may have engaged in some interference or obstruction of the investigation."
On May 17, 2017, the Senate Intelligence Committee, led by Republican chairman Richard Burr and Democratic vice chairman Mark Warner, sent two letters seeking information related to the committee's ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections. The first letter, sent to Comey, asked him to appear before the committee in both open and closed sessions. The second, sent to acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, asked for "any notes or memorandum prepared by the former Director regarding any communications he may have had with senior White House and Department of Justice officials related to investigations into Russia's efforts."
On May 17, 2017, the Senate Judiciary Committee, in a letter signed by Republican Senators Chuck Grassley and Lindsey Graham, and Democratic Senators Dianne Feinstein and Sheldon Whitehouse, also requested records from FBI, seeking "all memos relating to former FBI Director Comey's interactions with his superiors in both the Trump and Obama administrations" to be furnished by May 24.
On May 17, 2017, one day after the existence of the memos was reported by The New York Times, the Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein, as acting Attorney General, appointed former FBI director Robert Mueller as special counsel, charged with overseeing the FBI's ongoing counterintelligence investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections. On May 23, 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice ethics experts announced they had declared Mueller ethically able to function as special counsel. In an interview with the Associated Press, Rosenstein said he would recuse himself from supervision of Mueller, if he were to become a subject in the investigation due to his role in the dismissal of James Comey.
On June 8, Comey testified to the Senate Intelligence Committee that he had asked a friend of his to "share the content of the memo with a reporter" because he "thought that might prompt the appointment of a special counsel".
Legal experts are divided as to whether Trump's alleged request that Comey end the investigation can be considered obstruction of justice. Jens David Ohlin of Cornell University Law School and Jonathan Turley of George Washington University have argued that the request does not neatly fit into any of the practices commonly considered to fall under the obstruction of justice statute. Michael Gerhardt of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Julie O’Sullivan of the Georgetown University Law Center argued that it is hard to prove that Trump had an intent to obstruct the investigation. Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz said that "it's a very, very high bar to get over obstruction of justice for a president." Harvard law professor Jack Goldsmith noted that it was implausible to indict a sitting president, noting that "the remedy for a criminal violation would be impeachment" instead. Erwin Chereminsky of University of California, Irvine School of Law, has argued that it was obstruction of justice.
Noah Feldman of Harvard University noted that the alleged request could be grounds for impeachment. University of Texas law professor Stephen Vladeck said that it was reasonable for people to "start talking about obstruction". Harvard law professor Alex Whiting said that Trump's actions were "very close to obstruction of justice... but still isn't conclusive". Christopher Slobogin of Vanderbilt University Law School said that a "viable case" could be made but that it was weak. John Dean, former White House Counsel to Richard Nixon, called the memo about the private conversation with President Trump concerning the Flynn investigation a "smoking gun" and noted that "good intentions do not erase criminal intent".
Several Republican politicians and conservative journalists have asserted that Comey could be subject to legal jeopardy over his withholding the memos. Legal experts have criticized these assertions, with Harvard Law School professor emeritus Alan Dershowitz saying they are "total nonsense" and University of Texas School of Law professor Robert M. Chesney saying they are "completely uninformed".
Trump's lawyer criticized Comey for leaking the contents of his memos to the press, with Trump's lawyer saying that they were "unauthorized". University of Texas law professor Stephen Vladeck said that there was "no legal blowback" for Comey, unless "the memos involve 'information relating to the national defense'" or deprived "government of a 'thing of value'".
Former United States Attorney Preet Bharara said in a June 11, 2017 interview with ABC News, "there's absolutely evidence to begin a case" regarding obstruction of justice by Trump. Bharara went on to note, "No one knows right now whether there is a provable case of obstruction. [But] there's no basis to say there's no obstruction."
Alone in the Oval Office, Mr. Trump began the discussion by condemning leaks to the news media, saying that Mr. Comey should consider putting reporters in prison for publishing classified information, according to one of Mr. Comey’s associates.
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